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Avocados and Health

The Health Journal column of The Wall Street Journal featured an article that drew attention to the issue of whether many nutrients in fruits and vegetables require fats to be absorbed. A researcher who does a lot of work on nutrition, Dr. Steven K. Clinton of the Ohio State Comprehensive Cancer Center, came out with a study last year in which he found that by adding avocado or avocado oil (which the newspaper article treated as a general proxy for fat, although the study doesn’t make that determination), subjects enjoyed significantly greater absorption of lycopene, beta carotene and lutein when they had the avocado or avocado oil than when they did not.

I had read the article early in the morning, and by late in afternoon, friends in the avocado business had e-mailed me, faxed me and phoned me to point out the article as evidence the public should be urged to eat more avocados.

Well, I do hope people eat more avocados. I love a good spicy guacamole and think eating more of it will increase the stock of human happiness. I am absolutely certain that in the rank of nutritional problems of Americans, the over consumption of avocado ranks exceedingly, infinitesimally, low. So everyone should eat up. They’ve got a lot of them this year.

And it can be very profitable to sell avocados. I remember the California Avocado Commission used to run brilliant ads in foodservice publications. The ads were two-page spreads, and on the left-hand side there was a photo of some plain meat on a sorry bun and a headline saying something like “Chicken Sandwich $1.49”; then on the right-hand of the spread there was a photo of chicken on a festive plate with a slice of avocado and a headline saying something like “Chicken Ole, $3.99”. The point being that a little added-value can dramatically change consumer value perceptions.

So people should eat avocados, and the industry should sell. By the way, the single most useful commodity web site in the world, AvoHq, is maintained by The Hass Avocado Board. It has almost every bell and whistle you can think of, including nifty maps with market profiles of avocado sales penetration and live web cams of the ports of entry for avocados.

It would be easy enough to attack this study. To start with, they only studied 11 people! And I do think the article gave ridiculous weight to what really is very tentative information. The study also only provided evidence that some discrete dish, such as a salad or salsa eaten without fat, might not allow the body to absorb certain nutrients. It did not find that this deprivation of nutrients due to lack of fat was actually happening in the population over the course of their day. Maybe people eat salad without dressing to save up their calories for a steak. It is not clear there is a nutritional absorption due to lack of fat problem at all. So the most likely outcome of such “knowledge” being widespread is that people who are already eating plenty of fat will just feel a license to eat more.

But I am glad this article ran because it points to the extremely limited knowledge we have about nutrition and its impact on human health. Let us assume the study is correct and there is a trade-off to be made. If we all eat more fat and thus weigh two pounds more, but have better absorption of fat-soluble compounds, would we all be healthier? Would we all live longer? How do we weigh the benefit of increased absorption of beneficial compounds vs. the cost of obesity? The answer: Nobody has the foggiest idea.

In fact, when the 5-a-Day program first started, we couldn’t put avocados in the logo because the National Cancer Institute objected to the fat. Now, avocados are fully permitted, and the good folks at the Produce for Better Health (PBH) Foundation are fans. In fact, the PBH Chairman is now Jan Delyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission.

But coconuts are still not included in the program. Are they really so bad? One wonders if the coconut growers had more money for research whether they couldn’t find something favorable. After all, not everyone agrees that coconuts are bad.

PBH is moving away from its hyper-sensitivity toward fat, especially since the lead governmental partner switched to the National Center for Disease Control, which takes a broader view. But I really think that in the early years 5-a-Day hurt the industry because it had to run everything by the National Cancer Institute, and NCI wouldn’t let the 5-a-Day program promote recipes that used a lot of high-fat ingredients, such as oils and butter. But, more seriously, I think it hurt the health of Americans. Why? It doesn’t matter how healthful a recipe is if people won’t eat it.

The sine qua non for any recipe promoted by any food company should be: Is it delicious?

What about obesity, especially among children? Read this:

‘So it’s perhaps surprising that, in a debate that has often focused on foods alone, actual levels of caloric intake among the young haven’t appreciably changed over the last twenty years.’ -Then-FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan, 2003

Then look at these:

Here is where you can get more info.

What is clear is that the whole issue of diet is over-emphasized. When I worked on the Hunts Point (Produce Terminal) Market, my job included walking the whole market to buy for export several times a day. I never gained weight. Since my job now is sitting at a computer screen all day, I struggle with my weight. It is roughly the story of America.

Telling the American population to lay off avocados is beyond ridiculous, and it has nothing to do with the need for fat to absorb healthy compounds. It is an evasion of the problem, which is decreased activity.

Besides, the produce industry doesn’t have a monopoly on the health issue. Some people think the single best food to eat is

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